The disaster in Congo is all the more tragic because it was utterly avoidable.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 14 2008 5:39 PM

Five Million Dead and Counting

The disaster in Congo is all the more tragic because it was utterly avoidable.

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But exactly when it was needed most—exactly when they had the chance to put the legacy of the Rwandan genocide to rest—the support and cooperation and pressure from the international community never materialized.

Europe and the United States did not force Rwanda to cooperate with diplomatic efforts to disarm the FDLR, and they never sent more than superficial support for the U.N. peacekeepers in their military effort against the FDLR. As the summer progressed, diplomatic presence in the region waned.

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Anneke Van Woudenberg, Human Rights Watch's Congo expert, says the diplomats became tired of the peace process. "And that is exactly what Congolese people don't need. What [the people of Congo] need is for the United States, the European Union, and the African Union to be here every single day banging the table and making sure these groups adhere to what they signed up for."

Eastern Congo is a place of vast wealth in land and minerals, and all sides have their hands in the pot—or in the mines or forests or in the slaughterhouses. Rarely does any side negotiate in good faith, which is perhaps understandable after 14 years of war. But in the past, the parties involved have proved responsive to diplomatic and military pressure—if it's credible.

Right now, it's not. Only 5,500 U.N. peacekeepers currently patrol North Kivu, a mountainous region with more than 5 million inhabitants and at least 40,000 heavily armed soldiers and militia. Compare this with Chicago on the night of the U.S. presidential election, where 13,500 police patrolled a city of about 3 million that, as far as I can tell, hasn't had a militia since the 1860s.

Although it is the biggest U.N. mission in the world, the MONUC mission in Congo has never received the full troop allotment it has asked for, and the civilian section is chronically and disastrously understaffed.

Ironically, the current head of the U.N. mission in Congo, Alan Doss, was hired to wind down the $1 billion-a-year operation. Instead, he's asking for reinforcements. To put it kindly, Doss' first 11 months in Congo have been inauspicious. He has stood by as massacres have taken place in Bas Congo and Ituri provinces and now he has permitted a rebel movement backed by a foreign country to essentially take over North Kivu.

Doss' staff is near mutiny. His force commander resigned after one month for "personal reasons," which U.N. insiders tell me was code for We're heading for disaster, and I don't want to be at the helm. People who know much more about Congo than Doss say he has absolutely no vision for the east.

It took until Sept. 19 for Doss to request more peacekeepers for North Kivu, even though there had been cease-fire violations for months and three weeks of outright war. Now, nearly two months later, it looks as if the United Nations may be thinking about possibly considering sending reinforcements to North Kivu. Perhaps. If the United Nations says yes, the deployment will take two or three months, which raises the question of what 1 million displaced people will eat in the meantime, since the current insecurity prevents them from harvesting their fields.

The most obvious solution would be to send an EU rapid-reaction force to fill the security vacuum, but EU diplomats are dithering because—well, there's no other way to say it: DRC is not a genuine priority. Instead, Angola is sending troops to fight alongside the Congolese army. Rwanda is essentially already fighting alongside Nkunda. And if, in a few weeks, Uganda and Zimbabwe join in as well, we can all party like it's 1998-2003.

Over the years, many world leaders have made the trip to Rwanda to stand before the gravesites of genocide victims and apologize for their inaction in 1994. But if the worth of an apology is measured not in words but in actions, most of these apologies have been rubbish. True repentance for Rwanda has always meant ending the Congolese conflict—especially in the Kivus.

So maybe we should dust off one of the best apologies for Rwanda ever rendered and repurpose it for Congo, so that world leaders can get the talking out of the way and start acting. Here's President Bill Clinton in Kigali, circa 1998:

It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in North Kivu right now who are starving, hiding in the forest, and living in ditches in unimaginable terror that they might be killed.

Michael Kavanagh's reporting in eastern Congo for BBC, NPR, PBS, and other organizations over the past year was made possible through the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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